Premier League preview: Will Arsenal's prioritisation of pragmatism over idealism reap rich dividends?

Groundhog Day is over.

Well, in a way.

The cycle of Arsenal Football Club challenging briefly for the title and then falling away spectacularly, before mounting a last-minute rally to finish among the top four — ergo, qualifying for the following season's Champions League — was broken in the 2016-17 season. The Gunners finished fifth and out of the top four for the first time since manager Arsène Wenger replaced Bruce Rioch all those years ago. This is a whole new situation for a team almost monotonously accustomed to playing Europe's heavyweights every year.

And when the final whistle blew on 21 May, leaving Arsenal in fifth place despite defeating Everton 3-1 on a memorable sunny afternoon, a future of woe and misery was predicted from all quarters. Whether or not Wenger would stay on as manager seemed more unclear with every passing day, but that was resolved (for the next two years, at least) swiftly after the FA Cup victory. Whether or not Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Özil and (to an arguably lesser extent) Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will stay, however, are issues that persist. Not to mention the debate around what to do with Jack Wilshere, Calum Chambers, Carl Jenkinson and other such members of a rather large squad, by Wenger's own admission. At the end of the day, it's quite possible that Arsenal could find themselves going from a flabby squad to a rather emaciated one, unable to even challenge on one front, leave alone three.

Nevertheless, all of these are issues that will presumably be dealt with, one way or another, over the next 20 days before the transfer window shuts. But, enough doom and gloom, the new season is hours away and there are plenty of reasons for Gooners to be quietly — or loudly, it's entirely up to you — optimistic.

The 2016-17 season saw Wenger fall victim repeatedly to some of the worst abuse and rancour witnessed during his tenure, and it's safe to say that the vitriol trickled down into the changing room and had an effect on the team's morale, motivation and ultimately, performances. By the time the players had decided to put it all aside and get on with the game, it was too late for Arsenal to salvage anything but another Round-of-16 elimination in the Champions League, a fifth place finish in the league, and a record 13th FA Cup win.

However, what this does mean is that the team will not have the pressure and fatigue that accompanies football on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, allowing them to focus a great deal more on the Premier League — like Chelsea last season and Leicester City in the season before last. Sure, there's Europa League fixtures to get through, but it would be peculiar indeed if we didn't see Wenger give second-string and junior players minutes in fixtures played in obscure parts of the continent... and often on blocks of ice masquerading as pitches. This is a definite plus given the susceptibility of Arsenal players to injury and the frequency of exhausting three-game weeks and five-game fortnights that being part of the Champions League brings with it.

Arsenal new boys Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac in action against Chelsea during last weekend's Community Shield match. AP

Arsenal new boys Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac in action against Chelsea during last weekend's Community Shield match. AP

So how's it going to be different this time?

Every season, there's the popular refrain among fans — the non-AAA segment, that is — that this will be the season when the barren look of the trophy cabinet will undergo an overhaul; that this will be the season when Arsenal finally live up to all that potential; and that this will be the season when Wenger lifts the league title — something he hasn't done since 15 May, 2004. By November, this hope turns a little bleaker; by February, bleaker still; and by April or so, any remaining semblance of hope gets dashed to the ground. And then when the season is wrapped up, pundits, former players and critics point to that old chestnut of 'leadership' or the lack thereof in Arsenal ranks.

And they will likely be screaming themselves hoarse about that this season too, but there will be a marked difference on-field. Is it because Arsenal have acquired leaders (that meet the expectations of the Mark Lawrensons, Graeme Sounesses and Roy Keanes of the world) in the form of Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac? No. It's because the evolution of Wenger's thinking — glimpses of which were visible over the past few seasons — has finally manifested itself in a tangible form. His shift from idealism to pragmatism first became apparent with the signings of the likes of such players as Özil, Sanchez and Petr Cech. All of whom were the finished article and not the sort of unpolished gems Wenger normally acquires on the cheap. Sure, Cech only cost £10 million, but this was an instance of Wenger buying the wisdom of experience over the exuberance of youth.

The formation switch in the last 10 games of the 2016-17 season represented a larger shift in Wenger's thinking — moving from the 4-2-3-1 with which he had stubbornly persisted for years on end regardless of the opposition, to three-at-the-back. The change was an instant success, masking the team's defensive frailties and allowing the more offensively-inclined players more space to roam. Now, with the arrival of Kolasinac — a player seemingly tailor-made to play in that formation, it looks more than likely that the new system is here to stay.

Speaking of Kolasinac, it is the acquisition of the Bosnian, striker Lacazette and one other person that underlines the marked evolution in Wenger's thinking. That one other person is Jens Lehmann.

He arrived at the Emirates over the summer in a first-team coaching capacity. If ever there was a man who prioritised pragmatism over idealism or artistry, it was 'Mad Jens'. It is said the former Gunner was capable of picking a fight even if he was locked in a room by himself and there are enough players to bear testimony about his temper.

Unless Lehmann has mellowed drastically over the years, it is his hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach that as a member of coaching staff, will propel Arsenal this season and smack the players out of any ennui, lack of motivation, mental softness or complacency in which they might find themselves. The signing of Lacazette is also another move that hints at this pragmatism. After all, the striker reportedly had the best conversion rate of any striker in Europe's top five leagues last season, as per statistics assembled by Squawka. This is also a man who eschews fancy flicks and cute cutbacks for goals, no matter how they come. Upon arriving in North London, he is quoted as having said, "Every time I take a shot at goal, it's because I believe I can score... I don’t just shoot for the sake of it."

This should go some way in countering Arsenal's usual profligacy in front of goal and if Olivier Giroud — whose conversion rate has improved, despite largely being used as a super-sub last season — can link up with his French compatriot, the Gunners' desperate need for goals at critical moments could well be addressed.

This brings us neatly to the Bosnian tank. Kolasinac is in a couple of ways the most anti-Wengerian Wenger signing of all time. He's not small and he doesn't skip past opposition players. He's 6'1'', built like an ox and charges through opposition players. If linebackers are to be imported from American Football to regular football in the future, here's a sneak preview. And his presence is likely to strike fear into the hearts of right-wingers across the land (inmuch the same way supporters of Bernie Sanders would have hoped their man would, had he been elected President of the UnitedStates) In many ways, it's the former Schalke player who is the biggest exponent of Wenger's evolution of thought — beasts not ballerinas, in other words. That Wenger didn't splash out on a 'typical Arsenal signing' like Leicester's wantaway midfielder Riyad Mahrez bears testimony to his evolving approach.

And with last season's signing Granit Xhaka finding his feet after a tricky start to the 2016-17 edition of the Premier League and Rob Holding showing he's capable of standing up to the likes of Diego Costa, the team is beginning to a exhibit a lot more steel than in the past. And should this approach hold unwaveringly, Arsenal will be expected to pull off wins against the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham and the two Manchester clubs in situations that would have seen the Gunners roll over or settle for a draw in the past.

The contracts of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez are going to be major headaches for Arsenal. Getty Images

The contracts of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez are going to be major headaches for Arsenal. Getty Images

But it's not all peaches and cream for the Gunners

Far from it, in fact. The contractual situations of two of Arsenal's best attacking players (if not the two best) are going to be a bother for the entirety of the season. While Wenger has proclaimed on numerous occasions that Sanchez is not for sale and given the absence of worthwhile offers on the horizon for Özil, there's a tendency to believe that they'll see out their contracts honourably. However, there's all sorts of potential obstacles ahead.

What if they switch off and decide to shut down shop to push for a move?
What if their transfer saga — which will presumably be reignited next January when they are free to talk to other clubs — overshadows the team's on-field performances?
What if they act as destabilising forces for the rest of the team?

There's plenty of ifs and buts surrounding this situation and it is this aspect rather than the quality of the opposition that is likely to have a bearing on Arsenal's fortunes this season.

Certainly, there will be plenty of anguished screams, kicks at thin air, punches aimed at the ground, grimacing and gurning — all, after scuffing up easy chances on goal and letting in soft goals. Equally, one hopes there will be enough moments of brilliance between those to counteract those, because anything less than challenging for the title and some silverware will be seen as a failure and will test the patience of the presently-subdued Wenger Out Patrol a whole lot more. That said, there's plenty of reason to believe that the newfound pragmatism will help Arsenal win the biggest battle of all: The mental battle against themselves. And who knows, we could see the drought come to an end.

If nothing, finally, fans can at least look forward to a brand new "Boom Xhaka-Laca!" chant... starting, hopefully, against Leicester in a few short hours.


Published Date: Aug 11, 2017 06:00 pm | Updated Date: Aug 11, 2017 08:37 pm


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